Welcome, Mr. Secretary. Why’d You Come?

Marty Trillhaase, Editorial Page Editor, Lewiston

The Lewiston Tribune 2/4/12

Aside from former Idaho governors who wind up in a presidential administration – Interior Secretaries Cecil D. Andrus or Dirk Kempthorne – Lewiston doesn’t often see a cabinet member stop by.

So Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s visit Wednesday to the Port of Lewiston was a big deal.  The former seven-term House member runs an agency that employs 55,000 people and spends $70 billion.

Thanks, Mr. Secretary, for coming to see us – or at least a selected group of 50 dignitaries and reporters you invited to attend – Wednesday.

Just one question: Why did you come?  No, really.

Supposedly, the visit was timed to highlight a $1.3 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery Discretionary Grant allowing the port to expand its container dock.

But that’s old news.  The grant was awarded in June.  Plus, it’s $1.3 million, not $1.3 billion, not even $130 million.

Not the kind of federal transportation cash Idahoans have seen plowed into their interchanges, bridges, and highways, thanks to the Connecting Idaho program or the economic stimulus package.

When any of those projects were launched or completed, LaHood was nowhere around.

And while we’re at it, why are Idaho’s conservative Republicans – Governor C.L. (Butch) Otter and Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch – joining LaHood to promote a project that some trouble-maker from out of state might easily label pork barrel spending?

Has anybody forgotten the $1.3 trillion federal deficit and the raging debate about how to reduce it?

Has anyone neglected to remember how, at one point, Idaho Republicans tried to fund this project via earmarks – until earmarks became politically toxic?

Why, some critic might argue, do you need to expand a dock when container traffic at the port has slumped to record lows?  Last year, the number of containers filled with paper and agriculture products leaving the port dropped to 3,650.

That’s even lower than the 10,672 containers leaving the port in 1992, the year of the Snake River drawdown.

Shippers are choosing Puget Sound over the Port of Portland, and expanded docks at Lewiston won’t change that decision.

Besides, manager David Doeringsfeld is on record as outlining the port’s principal mission as job creation and retention, not navigation up and down the river.

OK, this is an election year.

But Otter, Risch, and Crapo are not on the ballot.  And the sole official who is seeking another term, U.S. Representative Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, was nowhere to be found.  Maybe he was busy elsewhere.  Maybe the Tea Party acolyte didn’t want to get too close to this project.  When the Tribune asked, Labrador’s Boise office didn’t return the phone call.

Certainly LaHood can’t expect to move the needle on behalf of his boss.  Idaho’s as much in the bag for Republican Mitt Romney as Washington is a predictably solid state for President Barack Obama.

So we’re at a loss to explain this trip, Mr. Secretary.  Perhaps you could enlighten us.

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